February 28, 2018


Intern Stephen Sneed shares the powerful story of Marianna*, part of our #ThankGodForWomen series. We are grateful for her willingness to share, and hope that by telling it, we increase awareness of global hurdles that prevent many women and girls from living out the full potential God has placed within them. (*Names have been changed)


A native Filipino and wife of an Iraqi refugee, Marianna’s journey to Memphis is unique. Sacrificing her beloved childhood island home and dreams instead for steady employment that would financially provide for her parents and brothers, Marianna would work for many years before finding love and starting a family, only to be caught in the crosshairs of an immigration nightmare before finally finding happiness and freedom in the United States.


Originally from a small island and fishing community in the Philippines, Marianna is the fifth of eight children, but the only daughter. She recalls having a strong support system at home and speaks fondly of her parents and brothers as she describes early memories. She recalls her life in the Philippines as good, but very hard because of the lack of resources and job opportunities. Her mother was a street vendor, selling fish and crustaceans in order to buy the family’s food, which mainly consisted of rice. Her father, a farmer, struggled during many seasons of Marianna’s childhood when crops would refuse to grow.


Hard work, frugality, and education were valued by Marianna’s parents. Through careful savings over years of hard labor, they were able to send a couple of her older brothers to college. But by her high school graduation, no money was left, and she had to find a way to support herself and help her family. Opportunities as a domestic worker enticed her to contracts in Manila and eventually Cyprus. She would be responsible for cleaning, cooking, and acting as a full-time nanny for more prominent families.


Working and saving for four years in Manila followed by five years in Cyprus, the days were long yet her work ethic was unwavering. Upon each paycheck, Marianna would send the money she could spare back to her family. When informed of her younger brother’s college aspirations, she pushed aside hopes for her own education and continued to sacrificially send support. Due to her tireless efforts and his diligent studying, he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. Extremely proud of him, Marianna is filled with gratitude when considering her role in helping him.


Away from her family and home for almost a decade, Marianna’s mother encouraged her to return home at the end of her contract. She enjoyed a restful reunion with her family for a couple of months before assessing the continued lack of employment opportunities at home, so she sought work abroad again. Through a connection with a relative in Lebanon, Marianna was granted documents for a domestic worker role similar to her jobs in Cyprus and Manila. She lived and worked with an employer family and transitioned well. However, at the end of her two year term, government regulations had changed: she could not renew her contract, nor had she earned enough money to return home.


A fellow Filipino woman compassionately provide Marianna with work at a Lebanese nail salon. This woman was more than just an employer to her, but a friend who fostered community: someone she considered to be family. During this new-found season of stability, Marianna met a man named Abdul* through the connection of a mutual friend. He was an Iraqi refugee who had fled Saddam Hussein’s army and escaped by foot to Syria. There he was granted refugee status with the UNHCR (United Nations Commissioner for Refugees) and temporarily resettled in Lebanon. What began as a slow friendship, visiting once a week for two years, allowed them to truly get to know one another and lead into their biggest adventure either had ever been a part of: marriage.


With love in her eyes, Marianna joyfully described her wedding day. She smiled as she spoke of her husband and what a good man he was. However, because they were both so far from home on their big day, Marianna and Abdul were the only ones in attendance. Rainy and cold that afternoon, Marianna nevertheless saw it as a blessing and she still dreams of her walk down the aisle in her white dress.


In 2015, two years after she married Abdul, Marianna gave birth to their son, David*. But tears welled up in Marianna’s eyes as she pressed forward in our conversation to describe a series of events full of trial and great difficulty.


During the years Marianna worked at the nail salon, the Lebanese government required differing detailed worker permits and documentation dependent upon the type of immigrant or refugee employment. Marianna’s status and documentation as the wife of a refugee was what she thought she needed in order to continue working in the salon. However, only five months after David was born, men from Lebanon’s Immigration Services arrived at the nail salon and informed her that her permit was not valid. Arrested and taken to jail, Marianna’s infant son was left behind in his crib at the shop.


She recounted her imprisonment through tears. Small and overcrowded, it offered no sunlight or fresh air due to its location under a bridge. Many of her fellow inmates were guilty of serious offenses. Marianna struggled to understand why she had been taken there. She desperately needed to be with her baby and above all, feared the possibility of being deported to the Philippines without her son and husband. She cried and prayed to God to reunite her with her family.


After 15 days, a representative from the UNHCR negotiated her release. Her prayers were answered: she was joyfully reunited with her family and returned to work with the proper paperwork. But soon Marianna learned that her father had fallen ill back in the Philippines. She needed her passport in order to visit him, but it had been confiscated when she was arrested! Marianna was advised that in order to retrieve her passport she would have to sign for it in person. Complying, she nervously returned, but instead of receiving her passport, prison authorities detained her again, this time with no reason or explanation. She suffered in prison another 15 days before the UNHCR could intervene. Tragically, her father passed away while she was detained and she missed his funeral. She felt as though her whole world had been flipped upside down. Relieved to be with her son and husband, she realized Lebanon was no longer the safe haven needed to raise a child and build a future. Abdul and Marianna urgently pursued permanent refugee resettlement.


In January 2017, Marianna, Abdul and David received the joyful news that they were finally granted permanent resettlement to the United States. World Relief Memphis greeted them with love and support for their early months of transition to their new home and new culture. During that same time, we paired them with a Good Neighbor Team, a small group of caring volunteers to walk alongside them in friendship and support. Together with World Relief, their Volunteers, and such a welcoming city, they are happy, healthy, and finally moving forward as a family.

Some milestones to celebrate in their first year in Memphis include Abdul’s job at a Memphis factory. He takes a few minutes of his lunch break to FaceTime with Marianna and David. Marianna passed her driver’s test after practicing daily with a new local Filipino friend. David is happy, healthy, and hungry to learn. English is spoken in their home, and he has learned his ABCs, counting to ten, and is quick to tell you what sound a horse makes. Seeing Marianna with David as he sleepily walks around their apartment in his Sponge Bob pajamas, it is incredibly touching to observe how devoted and caring a mother she is after having served so many other families as a nanny, and sending her money back to the Philippines to help her family survive. Now home with her own son, she provides David with encouragement and the deepest love. American flags and red, white and blue decorations grace their hospitable first American apartment, where tasty recipes are shared and delicious food is served to visitors. Marianna, content after so many years of hardship and fear, beams with joy. Now that she, Abdul, and David are settled in the U.S., they are happy…and they are free.


- by Stephen Sneed


After reading Marianna's story, can you identify the global giants she had to overcome? Some common obstacles for women and girls around the world include gender inequality, access to education, employment opportunities, and harmful belief systems - resulting in social, emotional, physical, and spiritual poverty. 

Additionally, 22.5 million people have official refugee status due to persecution and conflict like Abdul. Less than 1% are approved for permanent resettlement in the U.S. and other countries.

Be part of welcoming them - and transforming communities at home and around the world. If you would like to learn more about Good Neighbor Teams or other ways to come alongside our refugee and immigrant community, please visit www.worldreliefmemphis.org/volunteer-opportunities

November 20, 2017

World Relief Memphis welcomed 390 guests Friday, November 10th, at our 5th annual benefit, A Night to Stand With the Nations. We were greatly encouraged by all who attended and participated as we celebrated hope-filled stories of social, economic and spiritual transformation in Memphis. 

Emily Frazier's professional step into humanitarian photography was launched with our new photo exhibit, Images of Inspiration and Integration. (For information on how to host this World Relief exhibit as part of an awareness and action partnership with us, please contact Karen Spencer at kspencer@wr.org.)

The attentive crowd also experienced the first screening of Valley of the Children, our newest documentary short film in partnership with Pigeon Roost Collaborative. It will release more broadly online the week after Thanksgiving. Watch for more information soon!

We appreciate our speakers and the inspirational messages through music and testimonies.

Inspired, encouraged and hopeful for the future, we now join hearts and hands in prayer and in action as we step forward in faith toward our mission and vision in 2018 and beyond. 

Emily Frazier stands with the nations featured in her stunning photographs

Guests arrived early and filled the photo exhibit space before the dinner

July 6, 2017
Patty Smith and Mary Morrissey are the co-owners of Designers Workroom, a local Memphis shop. Through their partnership with World Relief Memphis Employment Services team and through their own efforts, they have employed multiple refugee women and have seen the value in working hand in hand with the sojourners of Memphis. The two business owners are passionate about seeing change in their city and gave us the privilege of speaking with them about their involvement with local refugees.
Having successfully operated their own business since 1999, Patty and Mary are no strangers to hard work. Creating everything from drapes, to bed skirts, to custom paintings and interiors, the women of Designers Workroom offer their services strictly to interior designers and manage luxury materials. Their business is small, but their influence is anything but.
Aside from creating and designing custom interiors and unique paintings, the women of Designers Workroom are deeply compelled to help others and are passionate about social justice. For years, they have worked alongside local refugees, offering them employment opportunities and gladly welcoming the chance to personally learn and grow from women with backgrounds that are much different from their own.
Patty explained the skill and responsibility that the refugee ladies she works with have taken on. “We are in an interesting work environment here,” says Patty. “We are reaching out into the design industry, working with big projects, in expensive homes and businesses. This is a dying art… this hand sewing… all of these expensive fabrics, and art, and furnishings, are going through here. People see all of these beautiful things being made but not everyone can handle dealing with such expensive materials. These women can.”
Mary began to tell us of how she first learned of the refugee crisis and why she felt so adamant about getting involved. “Catholic Charities is how I initially heard about refugees. What really made me do it, though, was through seeing something on the internet about how World Relief was looking for local employers to hire some refugee women.” Mary made it very clear that she deeply values equality and giving everyone a fair shot. She went on to say that she’s already telling everyone she knows that “they should personally look into the refugee crisis and do their own research. Anyone who is trying to learn about the refugee crisis should personally spend time with them.”
We asked, “Why refugees? What benefit as a business woman did you see in hiring some of the refugee employees that you have?” Mary didn’t hesitate with her response. “Well for one thing they are such hard workers, but there is a totally different reason for why I do it,” Mary explained. “It expands everyone’s horizon to work with refugees. If you pay attention you learn a lot. So yes they work hard, but they also add so much more to our work environment.”
She went on to share about how she has been practicing English with Rubiela, one of the newly hired women, and how through this they have had many meaningful conversations and learned a lot about one another.
“We are family,” explained Patty. “Yes, there may be differences… either political, cultural, or religious. But boy… if anybody needs the other, everyone joins together as a family. Those differences don’t matter.”
She went on to tell us that, “The best thing about it for me, and I think all of us, is that we are connected by the fact that we’re women and we overcome: whether it’s language or learning to get along in a multicultural situation. We especially learned this when our family experienced a personal life crisis. We came together and were all there for each other. These women have families too with all of the problems that everyone else has. We have to be strong and count on one another.”
This mentality was echoed from Mary when explaining our duty as people. “We’re all human beings and need to help each other. We have to better educate ourselves. That’s the only thing that will help us better understand…There are others outside of our own group that bring so much to the table.”
Mary, Patty, and all of the women behind Designers Workroom represent a narrative not often heard. It is one that relays the truth in how valuable refugees have been to Memphis and the responsibility we all have to educate ourselves, get involved, and play our part in welcoming our new neighbors. Through a joyful work ethic and a more-than-meets-the-eye atmosphere, some incredible things are taking place in Designers Workroom. A sense of duty and an eagerness to learn seem to be the driving force behind the women there and the outcome is nothing short of extraordinary.
Written By Stephen Sneed
Photography By Emily Frazier
March 8, 2017

One late night in January, a crowd gathered at the Memphis airport with Ahmednur, a Somali refugee breathlessly awaiting reunification with his wife and children. Ahmednur had been forcibly displaced from his homeland as a child in 1991, spending the next 24 years in refugee camps in Ethiopia, where he eventually met and married his wife, a fellow Somali refugee. After a lifetime of waiting, Ahmednur received the incredible news of his approval for resettlement in the United States. The joy quickly turned to anxiety, however, because his wife (and therefore their children) had been registered as a separate case long before they met. He would have to go without them The indefinite separation overwhelmed them, especially considering his wife was pregnant with their fourth child.  


Shortly after his 2015 arrival in Memphis, Ahmednur learned from his World Relief case worker that our office also provided immigration legal services. He quickly sought assistance and we were able to file for family reunification, ensuring that his wife and children would eventually be resettled in Memphis. Fast forward to this cold night in January 2017, our airport group celebrated with warm hugs, tender tears, incessant chatter and laughter as we welcomed Ahmednur's family, launching their transition from seeking refuge to refuge found.  


Little did we know that only a week later, their home country would be among those banned from entry to the US, a moratorium would be placed on refugees (including reunification), and 60,000 refugee arrivals would be slashed from the resettlement quota, making the line for families like Ahmednur's despairingly long. Even the newest Executive Order sadly lends additional discouragement by restarting the 120 day moratorium. 


Memphis Welcomes Refugees 

For nearly 40 years World Relief USA has welcomed people fleeing violence and persecution, most of whom are women and children. This is a critical time for refugees and we are witnesses to the greatest displacement of people the world has known. 


Since our Memphis office opened in 2012, we have seen with joy hundreds of lives transformed, from refugee families like Ahmednur's reunited, to children attending school for the first time. Your gift will serve refugees who have recently come to the U.S.—helping them adjust to life in Memphis—and preserve our office's services and expertise until the refugee admissions flow increases again. 


World Relief Memphis and the refugees we serve need your help 

Please consider a Monthly or one-time gift of support to the following funds: 


MEMPHIS GENERAL FUND: help us serve existing clients and prepare for future clients as we remove barriers to their self-sufficiency (such as rent, utilities, transportation), navigate cultural orientation, coordinate volunteers, oversee various eligibilities and service enrollments, connect employers with eager employees, educate-equip-empower churches and the community to be more welcoming to the vulnerable. GOAL: $48,000 ($18,000 will be matched by a grant 2:1) 


IMMIGRATION LEGAL SERVICES: help us offer a variety of low-cost immigration services to refugees, asylees, and other immigrants. Our office is a recognized organization by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and our services are provided by a BIA Accredited Representative. GOAL: $50,000 


Now more than ever your financial support is crucial to stand with the vulnerable in Memphis. Together let's lend hope for refuge found. Give online at bit.ly/SupportWRMemphis or by mailing your gift to World Relief Memphis, 3340 Poplar Ave Suite 222, Memphis, TN 38111. 



September 1, 2016

I was typing an e-mail when he sat down beside me for the first time. He looked about 7 or 8 years old. He had large, dark eyes and a smile that somehow seemed both timid and unbound. Unimpressed that I would waste a computer screen on e-mail, he pulled out a paper spinner and proceeded to play and giggle. As opposed to the adult clients, he seemed unconscious of his limited English. In fact, my new friend was determined to have a conversation with me and the other intern.

We asked him where he was from. Asia. We asked him how long he had been in the United States. Eight months. We asked him who taught him to make the paper spinner—was it his dad? No. His dad had died. He laughed awkwardly, looked down, and continued playing.

Only later did I discover that his father had been assassinated. Men from an opposition political party wanted to destroy the father’s political influence and take his land. In the end, they attempted to kill the boy, too. Fleeing for their lives, he and his mother have sought asylum in the United States. Each time that I see him, I learn something new that complicates the simple image of a boy laughing and playing with a paper spinner.

After ten weeks of interning with World Relief, I have come to appreciate the stories that lie protected just beyond an introductory smile. Syrian refugees invite us into their homes and offer us food and coffee. They smile. They laugh. They talk. All is well. I drive a pair of Congolese brothers to work, and they talk about their favorite American music. They smile. They laugh. They talk. All is well. I take a young Nepali to buy a new car battery. He smiles. He laughs. He talks. All is well. Everyone seems so normal until they offer you a glimpse of their story. Then, you hear that their village had been bombed. Their mother and sisters had been raped. He had spent his entire life in the limbo of a refugee camp. All is not well.

This summer has taught me the discomfort of moving beyond initial smiles and polite conversations. (Such movement must be by invitation only—never by force or presumption.) To do so means relinquishing easy stereotypes and reductive explanations. It requires living in ambiguity. It involves grieving. It promises pain.

By all means, thank God for the smiles and the laughter, but do not misinterpret moments of joy and rest for a world of justice and righteousness. We must draw near to the oppressed and marginalized and to the wounded and scarred. We must crucify our comfort.* Then, we just might move beyond niceties and enter with our neighbors into the grave of grief. Only then can we rise with Christ. Only then will we understand resurrection.

-Mary Ellen Poe, 2016 Summer Intern

* I am speaking here to myself and to others who lead comfortable lives, to those who have the privilege of distance from poverty, abuse, exploitation, and other forms of social harm. This statement should never be used against those who are already oppressed for the purpose of reinforcing unhealthy systems of power. Those who already live in constant grief understand the implications of resurrection.

August 10, 2016

I will never forget my first day of school. It was the fall of 1988 and I was a scrawny five-year-old refugee kid from Laos. Just two years removed from a refugee camp in Thailand, I walked into Haywood Elementary school in Nashville, Tn. I didn’t understand a word of English and wasn’t sure what to expect. My father, who was working two full-time jobs at the time, managed to get me to school but didn’t know that I needed a backpack and school supplies. He also forgot that I needed to be registered!

Eventually, I was placed in Mrs. Lambert’s class first grade class. I remember feeling scared and confused because I could not understand what anyone said. The best way to describe this experience is a scene I watched many years later from the cartoon show, Peanuts. Charlie Brown and his friends sat in a classroom while an off screen character, presumably the teacher, can be heard saying, “wha wha wha wha.”

To make matters worse, the students didn’t seem interested in talking to me—I guess it didn’t help that my name was Saengthien Mitsamphanh (Thi was actually my nickname). Often, I buried my head on my desk out of frustration and helplessness. Thankfully, Mrs. Lambert was gracious and patient with me. I’ll never forget her warm hug and welcoming smile.

The days at school turned into weeks and months and my comprehension began to improve. Letters turned into words and sentences and soon I was able to communicate with my peers and teachers. My ESL teachers, Mrs. Corley, Mrs. Gonzalez, and Mrs. Mittivong taught me to read and write English. More importantly, they showed me that I mattered and instilled in me that I could achieve anything I put my mind to. I distinctly remember when other kids were making fun of me by calling me “chicken.” I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. Mrs. Corley sat me on her lap and told me, “Saengthien, if anyone ever calls you chicken again, remember that Mrs. Corley LOVES chicken!”

There were others. Mrs. Mitchell, my second-grade teacher asked me one day to meet her in the back of the classroom. Was I in trouble? To my surprise, she showed me a black plastic bag full of boys’ clothing. She explained to me that her sons had outgrown the clothing and she wanted to give them to me. I held on to that bag all the way home.

Classmates turned into friends and failing grades improved until I was finally on the Honor Roll. By the time I headed into middle school I no longer needed ESL and my parents expected a report card full of A’s. Although they didn’t attend every parent-teacher conference, awards ceremony, or sports competition, they always encouraged me to study hard and take advantage of every opportunity to succeed. I eventually finished high school, became the first college graduate in my family, and last year received my doctorate degree.

This fall, many refugee kids will step into Memphis classrooms for the first time. They come with years of hardship and loss behind them but many more years of hope and opportunity ahead. Will their experience be similar to mine? What fears and frustrations will they feel? What challenges lie ahead for them? Who will come alongside them to encourage and equip them to thrive and succeed? My hope is that one day they can share similar stories of kindness, compassion, and acceptance.

There are many ways to invest in the lives of refugee students in Memphis. If you are interested in after-school tutoring contact nathanelliott@kwbc.org or Refugee Empowerment Program for volunteer opportunities. To help provide gifts cards for school uniforms, contact cjenczyk@wr.org.

Thi Mitsamphanh

May 26, 2016

If you've been involved with refugees in Memphis, you already know that transportation is one of the greatest challenges facing these new Memphians. The WRM team has seen first hand how successfully refugees overcome this challenge and found these two articles interesting when considering difficulties with transportation. 

In an article entitled The 7 biggest challenges facing refugees and immigrants in the US, Christina Nuñez, editor of Global Citizen, states that the lack of access to reliable transportation can affect nearly every aspect of a newly arrived refugee's life. She describes how limited English proficiency and literacy can delay obtaining a driver's license. The article also mentions that once a family does have one car, this still does not always meet all the needs for transportation. For example, children may need to go to school and adults may need to go to work or run errands at the same time. 

Global Citizen

In the March 2016 issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows further illuminates transportation challenges in How America Is Putting Itself Back Together. Fallows acknowledges the economic contribution of refugees and immigrants to smaller cities and towns while pointing out the difficulties created by inadequate transportation. In the article Fallows notes that unreliable public transportation is a significant challenge faced by refugees, who sometimes solve these problems by walking long distances to and from work, even in inclement weather. Fallows also tells that cultural norms regarding transportation can be challenging. 

In Memphis, you can help new refugees overcome their transportation challenges in 3 ways. 

  • Driver's Education Classes: Donate $500 to pay for a refugee to attend class and receive private driving lessons. Students also have the opportunity to take driver's license testing. 
  • ESL Volunteers: Volunteer to help a refugee become fluent and literate in English so they can pass the driving exam.
  • Used Cars: Donate a working used car or money towards the purchase of a first car. 

Acting on any of these steps will help refugees assimilate to life in Memphis and move towards self-sufficiency.


April 19, 2016
The number of Islamic immigrants fleeing to the United States and European countries has been steadily increasing due to a combination of economic, political and social factors.  Most of the time, people do not want to leave their home country, but they have no choice due to war, crime, poverty, and highly repressive governments.  The immigration crisis in Europe has gotten way out of control, and it is our job as humans to help in anyway we can.  In the fall of 2015, I traveled to Bologna, Italy for four months to conduct a research study on homeless Islamic immigrants, and the discrimination that they face because of their religion.  I heard stories of their treacherous journeys, listened to their painful experiences of inhumane prejudice, and learned about the peaceful religion that Islam truly is, not what many people stereotype it to be.  
More than anything, I built relationships and formed friendships that I will cherish forever.  As a result of my research, I gained a new passion for serving the refugee and immigrant population, and trying to combat the ignorant views and beliefs that are often placed on them.
Therefore, when I returned back to the United States, I could not simply forget about my experience abroad and have the mindset of having already done my “good deed.”  Now that I knew the reality of the immigration crisis, there was no way that I was going to simply stop working with immigrants and refugees, and World Relief gave me the opportunity to continue this experience.  For the past three months, my main project in World Relief has been teaching English to Halima, a woman from Somalia.  When I first met Halima, she did not know any English, but in just three short months, Halima has improved tremendously because of her perseverance and determination.  We still have long ways to go, but I have no doubt that because of her confidence, she will one day be fluent.  
Halima and I do more than just practice English.  She has taught me several words in Somali, and a few weeks ago, she let me try on the traditional attire.  We have taught each other that you don’t have to speak the same language to relate to someone.  We have not walked in each other’s shoes nor have we taken the same journey.  We come from different backgrounds, cultures and faiths, and because of these differences, we are constantly learning from each other and growing to be the understanding, accepting, and loving person whom we are called to be.  I am ashamed to admit that before I went abroad to conduct my research project, I did not think about the immigration crisis simply because I could not personally see it for myself.  It is a human tendency to ignore conflicts that are not personally affecting us, but it is our job to be more aware of what all is going on in the world.  In the words of an immigrant I befriended in Italy, “People look at me and see that I am black and Muslim.  They don’t see me for what’s inside of me.  You have to stand firm in the face of people who trade in prejudice for peace.”
-Anna Grace Claunch, WRM ESL Tutor
March 30, 2016

Zuhra, Turkmenistan, University of Memphis

Why am I doing this? How is volunteering valuable to me? Why does it matter?

Such kinds of questions rolled repeatedly through my mind when I was sitting during volunteering orientation.

Volunteering is the perfect way to learn and develop a new skill. Mahatma Gandhi said, ”Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” For me community service is a part of my life. It has strengthened my character in ways that will be professionally and socially beneficial for years to come. I had a huge experience before I arrived to Memphis. I worked at the National Red Crescent Society in Turkmenistan where I taught classes over Art Therapy to disabled kids at rehabilitation centers as well as kids from orphanages. I also helped elderly, lonely people who were living alone. When I first arrived to Memphis, I met amazing people who helped me with cultural adjustments and introduced me to World Relief, the only refugee agency in Memphis. I had never met any refugees before, so that experience was totally new for me and was one of the reasons I chose to complete my community service hours with them. I am so happy to be part of the World Relief family.

One of the greatest things about my volunteering experience with World Relief was meeting and building relationships with refugees from all over the world, whether it was having a dinner with a family from Syria or helping with a doctor’s appointment for a Nepali family. As I spent time with some refugee families, I was able to hear some of their stories, visit their homes, and learn about their cultures. I learned a lot of their stories that touched my heart. I can’t even imagine how hard it was to be separated from their family, culture, friends and environment. My experience with meeting and helping them opened my eyes to many different types of people and the difficult circumstances they are facing.

I believe that everyone deserves a better life. I’ve met refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nepal, etc. All of them are brave, intelligent, good-natured, delightful people who want the same future for themselves and their children as we do.

I assumed before that one person can never make a difference, but now I’ve realized that change starts with you. Yes! You, me, her, and just ordinary people. You have something valuable to contribute and learn from befriending, assisting, and advocating for immigrants and refugees.

It’s really neat to be able to take something and to present it to somebody else who really needs it. It can be just friendship, knowledge and experiences. It makes all the difference in the world.

Originally posted here.

January 22, 2016

So far 19 Syrians have taken refuge in Memphis, and Mahmoud Al Hazaz is just one. He left his home country of Syria behind and took his family to Jordan after the government shelled his successful restaurant. But life is rarely easy for a refugee. Mahmoud has now found safety in the Bluff City for his wife and four children and is hopeful the rest of his family can join him here soon. 

This isn’t a story of pain, even though it could be. It’s a story of hope that rises out of pain, and that’s probably the most genuine kind.
Imagine owning a successful restaurant, one that is profitable and full of customers, the kind you see time and again across Memphis. Mahmoud Al Hazaz’s street-level restaurant in Homs, Syria, drew big crowds, bringing him success and a good life.
But in the early days of what has turned into a crippling civil war, big crowds came to represent dissension to the Syrian government. In early 2011, when the Syrian regime came across large crowds they countered with AK47s, tanks and other weapons.
It was during this time that Mahmoud’s busy restaurant was hit with a tank shell. Thankfully when diners saw troops coming, they all went inside and no one died.
Think about that for just a moment. No one died. At a restaurant. Talk about finding the good in a bad situation.
“In the beginning of the events they started with peaceful demonstrations,” Mahmoud says through an interpreter. “Then the Syrian regime came with weapons. When they would see a big group of people they’d shoot at them. We had a crowd of people at the restaurant and the government hit it.”

 Mahmoud tells this story as he sits in the living room of the Memphis apartment he has called home since early December. There is no emotion in his eyes as he retells his story in a matter-of-fact tone. Maybe it’s the passage of time – it has been more than four years, after all – or maybe the fact no one died in this attack. Either way, Mahmoud seems grateful.
There is something different about Mahmoud. By all accounts, he is an excellent chef, with the ability to make fantastic versions of traditional Syrian specialties. But on this mild and sunny January afternoon in Memphis, Mahmoud isn’t talking about food. Not yet, anyway.
His restaurant was destroyed by his government. He and his business partner responded by reopening it in a taller building so it wouldn’t be in the line of fire. But Mahmoud also decided it might be safer if he stayed with a friend instead of in his own home.
The fighting eventually followed. The free Syrian army and Syrian government forces had firefights around his restaurant.
It’s estimated that since the Syrian civil war began in early 2011, a quarter of a million people have died. Mahmoud’s father was one of them. Mahmoud didn’t share how, only that a bullet did the job. No emotion, just a bullet.
Mahmoud left his successful restaurant of five years behind and took his family to Jordan. It was still pretty easy to leave Syria in November 2011. In those days a passport was enough.
It also helped that at the border crossing, no charges against Mahmoud or his brothers were found. So they were allowed to cross, ultimately settling in the capital city of Amman.
When he and his family first arrived, conditions were good. They were welcomed, and Mahmoud and his family began to resume life in a new home. But life is rarely easy for a refugee.
“In the beginning, Jordanians were welcoming,” Mahmoud said. “Their treatment was good, but then as more and more came and it got crowded, the way we were treated was difficult.”
Mahmoud said rents were raised, but because of his restaurant experience, this successful chef had no problem finding work, especially in the beginning. Also, living conditions weren’t bad, especially compared to Syria. Mahmoud’s extended family of 10 shared a four-bedroom apartment.
But then more Syrians followed and with them more difficulties. In his first year in Jordan, Mahmoud didn’t need special permission to find work. Later, though, the country began requiring refugees to acquire permission papers to gain employment, which meant it cost about $700 a year just to get a job.
In Memphis, Mahmoud hopes to gain permission to work soon. His traditional Syrian food is really good, he said. It’s hard not to take this man’s word for it. He’d love to find a restaurant that could use his services, or maybe a restaurant owner or investors willing to take a chance on a man who’s already taken a chance on life and won.
“All my experience has been with Arabic food, so that’s what I’m comfortable with. But I can learn anything,” he said. “I can do Western food.”
In broken English, he said “KFC,” with a smile.
Mahmoud has found safety in Memphis for his wife and four children. But his mother and brother, as well as his brother’s wife and child, are still in Jordan. Mahmoud said the family is hopeful to hear soon they can come to the United States.
Maybe you’ve heard their story. Mahmoud’s mother was interviewed by the website Humans of New York in early December. “Tomorrow he’s leaving for a place called Memphis, Tennessee,” she told the site. “I don’t know what I will do without him. I hope they will let me come to Memphis too. Can you tell us anything about Memphis? Are there nice people there? I heard that it is a city of music. I love music.”
Mahmoud is hopeful his family can join him here. He also has a brother still living in Syria, and two others living in Germany and Brazil, respectively.
Memphis is a different world than Syria. For one thing, Homs is a battleground.
“I didn’t know anything about Memphis,” Mahmoud said. “I knew California and Texas. It’s very nice here. The people have been excellent. Their treatment of us has been very good. I’m not just saying this for your sake. When I talk to my family they ask, ‘How is the treatment of Americans,’ and I say it’s wonderful.”
Mahmoud said his children were afraid at first because they were around new people, and because they didn’t know the language. They’re adjusting, though, particularly the girls – ages 10, 8 and 5 – who are all in school. The boy is 2 1/2, and like most toddlers, his attention is on the phone in his hands instead of the American reporter in his living room.
Mahmoud said his life was wonderful in Syria, but that was before the civil war. There is no going back for him, ever.
“Syria’s finished,” he said with a smile. “As far as I’m concerned Syria’s finished.”

He did admit that he’d like to one day live in his home again, but he knows better.

“There’s nothing to go back to,” he said. “The old city is demolished, complete destruction. There is no going back.”
Not to their house, at any rate. When they left Syria, Mahmoud and his family left a home fully furnished. Afterward, they heard everything was stolen, even the toilets, electrical fixtures, and light bulbs. It’s since been destroyed, presumably by an artillery shell.
And of course, Mahmoud’s story isn’t unique.
More than 800,000 Syrian refugees sought asylum in Europe between April 2011 and November 2015, according to the United Nations. That’s enough people to fill 12 soccer fields, standing very tightly.

 Additionally, the UN has registered more than 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and North Africa, most of them living in camps close to the border. For these refugees, it would take 62 soccer fields.
So far 19 Syrians have taken refuge in Memphis. Nearly 55 soccer fields fit in one square mile, and Memphis is over 300 square miles in size. That’s enough room for considerably more than 19 Syrians.
Steve Moses is the office director for World Relief Memphis, an organization that brings about 200 refugees a year to the area. He recently was in the Middle East, a region he’s spent a lot of time in over the years. He gets emotional recalling a 5-year-old girl he met.
“She cuts herself, breaks glass in her hand, takes cold showers yet shows no emotion,” he said. “Her uncle sits incapacitated and in a deep depression.”
But the most important part of the work he does, Moses said, is to deliver the message he’s been told to bring back to America, time and again.
“All – yes, all – of them stated they are human,” he said. “Real people … they desire for dignity and respect. (They want) their personal stories to be known and not simply lumped together as a large group of people.”


By Lance Wiedower in the High Ground News on Thursday, January 21, 2016. The original article can be found here